There were only so many things my 6th grade backpack could hold.
Having already loaded down our individual packs with personal items, we quickly realized we had underestimated the remaining supplies needed for the group. Even with our packs nearly full, we still needed members of our group to carry jugs of water, cooking pots, a flat skillet, 5 tarps, a cooler for cold food, another container of food and cooking utensils, and a few pieces of dry firewood protected from the elements with saran wrap. Did I mention it was raining?
It had been raining all day, in fact. Outside of breakfast and lunch in the dining hall, there had been no respite from the feeling of water hitting our heads. It was now early afternoon, and tonight was “Home in the Woods,” a camp tradition of sorts where campers spend a night out in the forest. Cooking over a campfire, setting up tarps to sleep in, and removing even further from the already insular camp environment were hallmarks of an event every camper looked forward to. But it was raining even harder now.
Using fragile twine to secure skillets and your father’s oversized sleeping bag to the outside of your backpack was the best (and only) solution. Compounding the issue was the ever-present juvenile nature of middle school boys; my cabin-mates and I were jockeying for the attention of the girls in our group. “Give me more; I can handle it,” we all said. There was a direct correlation to our perceived masculinity and the weight we added to our packs, until one of us would lean slightly backward and be pulled to the ground by the unbalanced weight, rendering you awkwardly helpless, a storm of limbs flailing in an attempt to return upright. I still have sympathy for turtles because of it.
At some point, we figured we had done all we could and proceeded down the trail to our site. At the beginning of the week, we had chosen the furthest site as ours. We had laid claim to it early amongst all the other Jr High groups; it was a coveted destination for the campout. Hindsight is always 20-20.
The more-than-a-mile trail felt even longer in the rain. Passing quite literally every other campsite, we finally reached the flat area we had so desperately desired just a few short nights ago. Feelings of relief for the end of a journey were instantly lost to the overwhelming task ahead of us. From my perspective now, having served as a counselor for countless campouts and trained staff in leading them, I know the counselors I had felt the same emotions. Securing large square tarps to sleep under in the forest is tough, it’s even tougher in the rain, and it’s nearly impossible when your help is a wet group of 14 6th graders. The only positive was we could test the quality of the set-up in real time. One camper would lay under our set up before we tied the knots and we’d ask “do you feel any more water hitting you?” If the answer was no, a knot was tied.
The system eventually worked and we turned our attention to our female counselor, who had been working to start a fire. Unsuccessfully. We tried all the things you’re supposed to try. Then we tried all the things you aren’t supposed to try. None of them worked. An hour went by where we tried physically blowing on the sticks to dry them, we tried scraping the wet bark off, we tried rubbing the sticks in dry t-shirts from our packs, we tried burning things that weren’t sticks, and then we even tried that bug spray trick. All failures.
Beginning to accept the reality of eating graham crackers and marshmallows for dinner, we resigned to return to our respective tarp-tents. The sun had already set, so gender specific huddles of flashlights walked away from the fire and toward their respective tarps. The groans of relaxation from the boys were instantly met from across camp with groans of crushing disappointment and maybe a few tears. In setting up the tarps, one of the edges of the girls’ tarp wasn’t turned up properly, meaning a small stream had been created from the flow of rain that ran on top of the ground tarp, directly through all the belongings of the girls in our group.
Usually, when something bad happens at camp it’s a minor setback. A rainy afternoon means we reschedule a certain activity, or a toilet breaks in a cabin, so one group has to cross the hall to use another for a day or two. But this was different. So many things had gone wrong that day. So many failures compounded to find a group of 2 college age staff and 14 6th graders huddled in the dark looking down at a mass of soggy sleeping bags, backpacks, and clothing, utterly helpless.
But then something great happened. One of the girls, exasperated and crestfallen just a few moments ago, started laughing. And then another girl. And then the boys started laughing. What else could possibly go wrong? There was a relief in the confidence that this was rock bottom. Our counselors looked at each other and their concern turned slowly to smiles and then they shared in what was now a full group of campers giggling about how absolutely awful the day had been. The boys ran back to their tarps and grabbed all the extra dry clothes they had to give to the girls. At some point the rain had let up, and I know you don’t believe that positivity started a fire, but it did. We hung wet clothes on sticks and held them over the fire to dry them. We laughed more. We danced and sang our favorite camp songs. We ate the tiniest hobo-packs (ground beef and veggies inside tin foil warmed on the coals of a fire) I’ve ever eaten, and we were full.
And we returned the next morning with one of the greatest stories of our lives.
Don’t miss Part 2 of the story, here.
-Ryan “Flash” Moore, Assistant Director